The Moors. The moon lours over the rolling desolation of hills. Sickly heather and sparse grass cling tenacious to the dark soil. Gnarled trees, stand isolated, beaten down by rain but still defiantly braced against the wind whose bitter breath chills to the bone.
The rain falls, insipid and weary, on the soaked earth and mist swirls sinuously in the ebbing light. From beyond a shattered pile of rocks comes the sound of dragging steps, breaking the heavy silence of the night. Slowly they approach the open ground and a woman hoves into view. She is small, her clothes ragged as though from days on the moors, her shoulders hunched against the wind, a mud-coloured shawl pulled tight around her. A braid that was severe days ago lies limp against her shoulder and wretched curls that have escaped its bounds hang around her face.
You can see the hunger in her, it tightens her skin, clenches her fingers like claws against her shawl and hangs heavy from every limb.
Jane. She is all but lost, following a light in the darkness to somewhere that will never be home. Home and everything warm and loved and execrated and desired lies behind her.
She lifted her eyes to scan the dark for that bead of light once more and something crossed her field of vision, disappearing out of the corner of her eye before she had time to truly see it. She stopped, swaying slightly on her feet, gazing into the dark, glaring around her, weary but with a jut of defiance in her jaw.
‘I haven’t anything to steal,’ she called out. ‘If you wander the moors this night seeking bewildered travellers… I am one of their number but I have nought worth taking.’
She was met with silence but to her right again something moved, just out of sight. When she turned, she was faced only with the towering rock structures that looked like some giant had carelessly piled them one atop the other in a game long since forgotten.
Jane straightened her shoulders and hesitated only briefly before taking a decisive step forward. As decisive as her weary limbs would allow.
Before her step had been fully taken, the thing from the corner of her eye was before her face, screaming in a voice that sounded like the wind, spectral fingers pushing at her shoulders. It was a ghost, a changing thing of memory and shadow but with fire in its veins enough to make its hands as hard as flesh.
Jane stood silent in the face of the onslaught, trying to see and hear. Trying to pick words out of the storm, stubbornly refusing to turn as the hands on her shoulders pulled and pushed to change her path away from the rocks.
The ghost had been beautiful. She still was when her face was a face and not a screaming fleshless skull. Wild eyed, with hair that steamed behind her, a face that knew that it was beautiful but with its mouth opened wide and screeching, all thought of beauty behind it. Her clothes changed around her, from the tattered robes of the grave through which bone and flesh peeped, to the red silks of ball dresses and spring green muslin morning dresses which enclosed limbs as pale and whole as Jane’s own.
Jane sifted through the screeching words until she could hear them, focusing on the bead of light behind the ghost’s head, the one she had been following, which she saw now was a candle in a window frame. A candle for the lost or for the dead.
‘He’s mine. Leave him. Mine. You can’t have him.’
Jane thought she recognised the face now. She had seen it once before. And she had felt pity then and horror at the man beside her. What had happened she did not know, but he was not hers. This screaming thing upon the moors had passed into shadow and had no claim on him.
Jane placed her hands over the skeletal fingers, felt them disappear and reappear beneath her grasp – sometimes skeletal, at others robed in half rotted flesh, and then again as cold and rain dampened as her own. She gripped them and flung them from her.
‘You can’t keep him. He’s mine.’
The spectre drew back a step and for a second Jane saw her clear and thought that perhaps she had been mistaken. For the woman before her looked nothing like that poor woman in the attic. Bertha. That had been her name. She looked nothing like that glimpse of Bertha she had taken before leaving the room – a woman composed of rage, and bitterness and madness. But who knew how time had changed her. Maybe she had been this beautiful bride once.
But the ghost’s face changed before her eyes. Wildness filled the woman’s eyes; rage and spite tightened her face and she still looked nothing like Bertha…
Before Jane had time to consider, the ghost was upon her, spectral fingers curled into claws, raking across her face. She felt her own blood, dripping down her cheek. A few drops, nothing more, but it stung.
She lifted her arms defensively and tried to grab her assailant’s wrist but they melted beneath her fingers. She felt hands circle her throat and with desperate fingers started to pry them away as they shifted beneath her hands. She manged to get them in her grip for long enough to breath and squeezed. The ghost reeled back in pain, her face a grimace.
Jane held on. Watching the ghost’s arms as they shifted beneath her gaze. Focusing, she stayed one step ahead of the ghost, her hands always clasped around those ghostly fingers or only second behind their reappearance inches away. Jane felt at one point a squirm of writhing flesh and saw the train of maggots crawling from the woman’s arm onto her hand before once again that ghostly flesh healed over in an impression of life. She shook her arm to rid herself of the wriggling pests.
While she was concentrated on dislodging the maggots, the ghost’s forged past her defences. She left her ghostly hands in Jane’s grasp but teeth bared, the ghost lunged for her throat. Jane felt the ghost’s teeth scrap along her flesh, biting into her neck. She jerked her head away and felt flesh rip.
She let go in shock and the ghost leered triumphant but Jane gathered her strength. She hurled herself atop the phantom and knocked it to the ground.
‘Cathy! Cathy!’ Jane heard a man’s voice cry.
‘Cathy?’ she asked looking at the woman below her but the ghost paid her no attention.
‘Mine, you can’t have him,’ she hissed. She disappeared from beneath Jane who found herself falling heavily onto the grass as a foot was placed on her back pushing her into the sodden dirt. Her mouth was full of it. Her lungs hurt with the effort of breathing as she pushed back against the foot that pinned her down.
The voice had grown more distant and Jane felt the pressure lighten on her back and then leave altogether. She raised her head a little to breath and looked around her surreptitiously. When she saw that the ghost (Cathy, she supposed) was heading slowly in the direction of the cries, she forced herself up on her elbows.
She watched the ghost, remembered the feel of the foot on her back, the painful tightness of her lungs…
She leapt after Cathy and catching her unawares, she gripped her by the hair and pulled.
‘We have unfinished business, you and I,’ she whispered in the ghost’s ear. Yanking on her hair she threw her to the ground. She slammed down on top of her, knees either side of her chest. And for a second she stopped. For the face below her was that of a young woman, of little more than her own age, perfect in its youth but with a wildness in her eyes that echoed all of Jane’s own longings for freedom. And for a mad second, she thought of pressing her lips to those beneath her and drinking that freedom from her, sharing it. Two things wild and free and poor and lost upon the moors at night. Her hesitation left Cathy all the advantage. But before the ghost’s hands thrust her back, before the fight was over with a sickening crack of her skull against the rock, she would have sworn she felt the brush of those ghostly lips against her own with an iciness that felt like liquid fire.
Jane woke to an absence of pain and bright spring day. The clouds, for once, were missing from the sky and a weak sun was making the wet ground seem to shine. She had expected pain. Her last memory was the sound of that crack. As she sat though, she noticed no ache, no biting pain, no sting from the wound. Then she realised that all the aches of the last few days, the hunger that had gnawed at her belly, the rubbing bite of blisters, all of it was gone.
She was unsurprised when she looked down and saw her body, laid like a ragdoll, loose-limbed and broken against the rock.
She remembered the ghostly woman.
She clenched her fist.
‘I’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth, Cathy,’ she cried out into the stillness of the moor. ‘You’ll never be free of me.’
A ringing laugh rung out over the moors from everywhere at once.